Sunsets, Literal and Metaphorical: Kaohsiung to Taitung (The South)

This post is part of Up and Down, All Around: Bike Touring Taiwan


Day 9: Kaohsiung — Kenting

Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Distance: 74.1 mi / 119.3 km
Elevation: 2091 ft / 637 m
Accommodation: The Southernmost Campsite

Kaohsiung to Kenting

Whenever I set out on an adventure, whether it’s a hike, bike ride, backcountry ski tour, or road trip, I always inspect a map first, so I know what to expect in terms of the path I’ll need to follow, elevation gain or loss, and landmarks or surroundings I might encounter along the way. Well, the first half of the journey from Kaohsiung to Kenting looked more scenic on a map than it actually turned out to be, but the second half was as advertised: spectacular.

Our day began with an early vibrate-only alarm so as not to wake the other bike tourers “camped” next to us. We stuffed our clothes in our bags (again, never quite dry!) and hit the road. We followed PH 17 south for a bit, but the morning traffic drove us to seek out bike paths whenever possible. This turned out to be a bit of a gamble: some provided car-and-scooter-free riding for several kilometers, while others dead-ended abruptly or just linked sections of normal crowded sidewalk. Teresa soon spied a breakfast stand along one of these bike paths, where we purchased some danbing and devoured them at the nearby Family Mart, a chain that features basically the same selection as 7-Eleven but is just a little less polished (ahem, where is my huangying guanglin?!).

IMG_4838We rolled through some mega-industrial complexes on the way out of the city, reminding us that Kaohsiung is a major economic center that boasts the busiest shipping port in Taiwan. Just as we were again considering the need to equip ourselves with masks like the rest of our biking and scootering compatriots, we emerged onto a multi-kilometer bridge that led us away from the factories and landed us in much greener pastures. After a 7-Eleven pitstop and a grimy suncreen reapplication, the mountains began to loom into view as we rode further south. Then we started to catch glimpses of the sea. Then finally, for the first time since we left Hualien, we had both at once!

The tropical highway views were just as wonderful as those along the eastern coast and the side of the highway was dotted with scenic rest stops, cafes, and overlooks. As we carried on, a number of kitted-out road cyclists zipped by us. Similarly, we whizzed past several people who were walking around the entire island, at least judging by their hip-harnessed trailer set-ups. As we neared the beach town of Kenting, we made a small detour closer to the coast, which provided a quieter road to cycle on but lacked the ocean views hinted at by the map. Some quick weaving through a bit of road work and we arrived in Kenting.

Kenting is a beach town nestled up against one of the few golden sand beaches in Taiwan – most of the rest of the coastline is some combination of gray sand, gravel, fist-sized stones, or rocky outcroppings. The beach itself is not that large and appears to not really allow swimming, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We walked up and down, took some glamour photos, and watched a hermit crab trekking up the sand. That crab was basically us – hauling its shelter along on a meandering journey and plopping down periodically to rest.

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As sunset approached and we neared our campsite, we were greeted by really unpleasant headwinds. We planned to camp right near the southernmost point of the island, maybe 8 km from the town, but as we rode into the dark our dinner options started to narrow considerably. We stopped in a little hamlet a few km from the camp, right at the base of a super-steep hill, and went into the only open restaurant we could find. At first, we were a bit apprehensive when the English-language menu came out – usually that means a steep premium in tourist-friendly areas. It was a bit pricey compared to other dinners on our ride, but we soon forgot these worries when we were rewarded with a five-plate feast of delicious seafood and tasty pork belly.

The combination of our full bellies and the steep incline made riding to our campsite pretty unattractive, so we walked our bikes uphill and then turned on to a pitch-black side road down to a pitch-black campsite. We were able to enter but there was absolutely no light, no one to check in with, and no cell phone reception. In order to avoid a repeat of our police check-up at Shitiping, we walked back up toward the main road to get cell service. We sat by a government weather station while we contacted Teresa’s family to let them now we were ok, phoned the campground hosts to see if we could stay, and then waited for them to arrive. They soon showed up and transformed the campground into a brightly-lit field, also cleaning out the showers and bathrooms for us. A bit better situated, we turned out the light on our campsite’s tree (not a sentence you encounter every day) and soon fell fast asleep.


Day 10: Kenting — Xuhai

Wednesday, November 29, 2017
Distance: 30.1 mi / 48.4 km
Elevation: 2022 ft / 616 m
Accommodation: ZuoAn Homestay and Campsite

Kenting to Xuhai

Well, at least we thought we were fast asleep. At some point in the night we were awoken by a sudden downpour of rain right in the face (we had left the rain cover off to enjoy the ocean breezes). I scrambled outside to get our tent covered up, only to have the rain quit within 5 minutes of re-entering the tent. This also left us wide awake to enjoy the commotion of a group of scooter-riding vagabonds that arrived shortly thereafter, who mostly rode around the outside of campground and sat by the front gate singing karaoke.

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Due to the night’s various events, we woke up a bit groggy, but we grabbed our snacks and strolled down the footpath to Taiwan’s southernmost point to eat breakfast. The view was not too different than many of the other seaside areas (pretty, but not INCREDIBLE) and there was a decent-sized monument here as well. We met another bike touring couple from the Netherlands who were also enjoying the view and who had spent the night sleeping on the grounds of the local school (an option if you are willing to camp outside and get out early before the students arrive). Soon, an Australian middle school tour group arrived, the tiny platform grew a bit crowded, and we fled the awkward interactions caused by so many raging teenage hormones.

We packed (late night drizzle = not quite dry…again) and walked up the steep incline from the campground back to the main road. Having passed the southernmost point, we were now officially back on the same side of Taiwan where we had started and the scenery soon began to look familiar. With a shorter distance to cover this day, we felt free to make numerous photo stops to take in the coastal views. At one overlook, I had a mostly successful Chinese conversation with an older Taiwanese man who was only too happy to take our picture, then prodded me to give Teresa a big smooch for the last one.

We turned inland at a small town adorned with numerous surfboards and waved as we passed our Dutch friends from the morning, who were enjoying a break at a local cafe. As we turned away from the coast, the steamy heat started to pick up, so we ducked into a supermarket in the next town for some drinks, air conditioning, and lots of food (the town where we planned to stay that night had no shops for us to restock before the next day’s big climb and ride to Taitung). As we came outside, who should pull up but our Dutch friends!

So began the most relaxed midday we had experienced all trip. It turns out the Dutch folks were named Jasmin and Thijs and they were riding with a Taiwanese guy named Yitun, who we recognized from an earlier stop at a seaside overlook. The five of us ducked into a duck noodle shop and sat down for a tasty lunch. We were soon joined by a group of Taiwanese road cyclists (perhaps the same ones we had seen on the way to Kenting?), who matter-of-factly told us that they only ride to eat, that they usually eat 10 meals a day, and that this one, at 11:30 AM, was already their fifth.

As with the other bike tourers we had encountered, we were curious how Jasmin and Thijs were getting along without speaking any Mandarin. Watching them in action, it didn’t seem like they had too much trouble communicating in English or at least befriending folks who spoke some English along the way. However, they did say that sometimes it was really difficult, so Yitun soon disappeared and then came back with a borrowed piece of cardboard on which he wrote some key phrases for them like “we do not eat meat, but eggs and fish are ok” (being a non-language-speaking vegetarian would be hard!).

After finishing up lunch, we went a short ways up the road to the 7-Eleven, where we spent another hour or so chatting in the shade. Jasmin and Thijs spoke excellent English and Yitun understood most everything but often preferred to communicate to Teresa in Mandarin so that she could translate. It was a fun time and we were glad to have met a few fellow riders on our journey, plus it gave us an excuse to avoid the worst of the midday sun/heat. But eventually, Teresa and I…just wanted to ride! So after a good slather of sunscreen, we all hit the road again. Soon enough, we passed Thijs and then Jasmin, who were riding mountain bikes, and then met up with Yitun again as we made the final climbs before dropping down to Xuhai.

The descents to the coast were as grin-inducing as any on the trip, with almost no cars and lush surroundings everywhere. It was just like some of the areas we saw on our first few days, we really were almost back to where we started! We caught some seaside views once we rejoined the coastline and eventually arrived in Xuhai, where we said goodbye to Yitun and claimed a camping spot in a campground full of funky RVs. The owner got everything ready for us by blowing the leaves off of our patch of concrete and turning on the blazing overhead lights for us. As he was walking away, I chased him down to pay for the site, and as I was handing over the money he said something I couldn’t quite understand. After a couple of attempts, I apologized for not getting it and he said ok, no worries. I turned around to see Teresa holding her head in her hands and chuckling. “He said your Chinese is very good and you said ‘sorry, I don’t understand!'” Oops. We devoured our snack dinners (hooray for 7-Eleven rice triangles!) and turned on an electric fan to get a breeze going in our tent (I was initially morally opposed to this but it made things SO much more comfortable). Only the Shouka climb and some headwinds separated us from the finish line with Teresa’s family in Taitung.


Day 11: Xuhai — Taitung

Thursday, November 30, 2017
Distance: 61.1 mi / 98.3 km
Elevation: 4504 ft / 1373 m
Accommodation: Home!

Xuhai to Taitung

We awoke about as rested as could be for having slept on concrete under flourescent lights. We ate, packed quickly, and hit the road at about 8, again grateful we had stockpiled enough snacks to self-supply for breakfast. We were immediately whisked inland and upwards onto the formidable Shouka climb, which is one of the two most difficult segments of the whole tour, along with the climb out of Jiaoxi towards Taipei. Like, just look at that lump in the elevation profile above! As we pedaled along, it began to dawn on us that this was suddenly the last day of the tour. There was definitely a mix of emotions: excitement to accomplish our goal, relief for not having to put our butts on bike seats the following day, but also sadness that the window for possible experiences offered by this adventure was swinging closed.

We made our way steadily up the climb; with few cars, little wind, and not too much heat, it was actually pretty enjoyable. The lush surroundings and quiet towns along the way further distracted us to the point where going up was actually pretty fun! As we pedaled on, the terrain went from uniform climbing to more rolling, and at each crest we kept wondering whether this was really THE top. Along the way, we got more valley-to-ocean views than we knew what to do with, facing the familiar conundrum of being compelled to stop for pictures of the amazing scenery.

DSC01932Then, all of a sudden, we hit Provincial Highway 9, which led only one way: down! We had completed the climb without even really realizing it! This descent ranked right up there with some of the best we had experienced over the last few days. The only drawback was the heavier traffic on this road as compared to the others; we could really zip along the wider curves with no vehicles around, but we were often forced to make way for for cars, taxis and the occasional truck.

IMG_5043 (Edited)As we swooped down to the coast, we paused at the first 7-Eleven we encountered out of pure habit (must…get…snacks), only to realize we didn’t actually need anything. As a few small towns beckoned on the map, we headed up the coast in search of lunch. While we needed to cover just 6 km to our chosen spot, the coastal headwinds had returned, and we pulled into the fishing village of Dawu way hungrier than anticipated. We celebrated with an appropriately local meal of fish and rice with meat sauce.

Back on the road, we remembered exactly how much we hate headwinds (hint: lots!). However, we didn’t have too much time to worry about that, as our route along PH 9 offered beautiful ocean views juxtaposed with some narrow tunnel riding and a seemingly endless string of highway construction projects. In some sections, traffic was reduced to timed one-way flows, which made it particularly stressful trying to get through before the oncoming traffic got the green light. The steep terrain and the magnitude of the fortifications against ocean, earthquake, and erosion highlighted just how difficult it can be to maintain the systems of industrialized life in the face of the many natural forces that Taiwan is subject to.

Along the way, we spotted the Duoliang train station, alleged to be the most beautiful in Taiwan. We could certainly see the lovely surroundings and imagined how picturesque it might be to see a train pass through. However, the platform was up a steep incline from the main road, which in our frazzled state made it decidedly less beautiful. We finally cleared the last of the road construction and coasted as best we could down into Taimali, where we made our last 7-Eleven stop of the tour.

The final 20 km into Taitung brought on another wave of emotions: joy to have completed such an ambitious journey, anticipation for a bit of home cooking and rest, sadness that it was all coming to an end, and frustration with the stubborn headwind, which just refused to give up! As we neared home, we split from PH 9 toward Zhiben (along the main inland route) and headed up PH 11 for Taitung. Working as a two-person peleton, we stuck together as much as possible, with the lead rider churning against the gusts as the other got a bit of a respite. We struggled and struggled, then suddenly recognized a familiar bridge, then a seaside park, then a few side streets, and pretty soon we were dragging our bikes inside, accepting congratulations and offers of food. In that moment, the joy won out. We had done it!

 

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